Meals occur primarily at homes, restaurants, and cafeterias, but may occur anywhere. Regular meals occur on a daily basis, typically several times a day. Special meals are usually held in conjunction with such occasions as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and holidays.
A meal is different from a snack in that meals are larger, more varied, and more filling than snacks.
A picnic is an outdoor meal where one brings one's food, such as a sandwich or a prepared meal (sometimes in a picnic basket). It often takes place in a natural or recreational area, such as a park, forest, beach, or grassy lawn. On long drives a picnic may take place at a roadside stop such as a rest area.
A banquet is a large, often formal, elaborate meal, with many guests and dishes.
Most Western-world multicourse meals follow a standard sequence, influenced by traditional French haute cuisine. Each course is supposed to be designed with a particular size and genre that befits its place in the sequence. There are variations depending on location and custom. The following is a common sequence for multicourse meals:
- The meal begins with an appetizer, a small serving that usually does not include red meat. It is sometimes referred to as a soup course, as soups, bisques, and consommés are popular entreés. In Italian custom, antipasto is served, usually finger food that does not contain pasta or any starch. In the United States the term appetizer is usually used in place of entrée, as entrée refers to the main course.
- This may be followed by a variety of dishes, including a possible fish course or other relevés (lighter courses), each with some kind of vegetable. The number and size of these intermittent courses is entirely dependent on local custom.
- Following these is the main course or entre. This is the most important course and is usually the largest. The main course is called an entrée in the United States.
- Next comes the salad course, although salad may often refer to a cooked vegetable, rather than the greens most people associate with the word. According to The Joy of Cooking, greens serve "garnish duty only" in a salad course. Note that in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and parts of Europe, the salad course (usually a green salad) is served at some point before the main course. Sometimes, the salad also accompanies the cheese course.
- The meal may carry on with a cheese selection, accompanied by an appropriate selection of wine. In many countries cheeses will be served before the meal as an appetizer, and in the United States often between the main course and dessert, just like in Western European countries. Nuts are also a popular after-meal selection (thus the common saying "from soup to nuts," meaning from beginning to end).
- The meal will often culminate with a dessert, either hot or cold, sometimes followed with a final serving of hot or cold fruit and accompanied by a suitable dessert wine.
Before the meal, a host might serve a selection of appetizers or hors d'œuvres with appropriate wine or cocktails, and after the meal, a host might serve snacks, sweets such as chocolate, coffee, and after-dinner drinks (cognac, brandy, liqueur, or similar). These are not considered courses in and of themselves.
A meal may also begin with an amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d'œuvre or first course of a meal. Often accompanied by a complementary wine, these are served to excite the taste buds, to prepare the guest for the meal, and to offer a glimpse into the chef's approach to cooking.
An entremet is a small dish that may be served between courses, or as a dessert.
The type of meal served or eaten at any given time varies by custom and location. Further, the names of meals are often interchangeable by custom as well, such as some will serve dinner as the main meal at midday, with supper as the late afternoon/early evening meal and others may call their midday meal lunch and their early evening deal supper. These can vary from region to region or even family to family.
- Breakfast is usually eaten within an hour or two after a person wakes in the morning.
- Lunch or dinner is eaten around mid-day, usually between 11 am and 2 pm. In some areas, the name will change between these two depending on the content of the meal.
- Dinner or tea is a meal eaten in the evening. In some areas, the name will change between these two depending on the content of the meal.
- Supper is often a meal eaten later in the evening, prior to retiring for bed.
- Second breakfast is a traditional mid-morning meal served in parts of central Europe.
- Elevenses, also called "morning tea", is a drink and light snack taken late morning after breakfast and before lunch.
- Brunch is a late-morning meal, usually larger than a breakfast and usually replacing both breakfast and lunch; it is most common on Sundays.
- Afternoon tea is a mid-afternoon meal, typically taken at 4 pm, consisting of light fare such as small sandwiches, individual cakes and scones with tea.
- High tea is a British meal usually eaten in the early evening.
- Last meal is a meal served to a prisoner before his execution.